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Characters Overcome Gender Oppression in ACT's Lively 'Cloud 9'

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(L–R) Valerie Compton, Mario Mazzetti, Garrick Sigl, Zoe Foulks and Zaya Kolia in Cloud 9. Photo by Bob Toy.

Hide your feelings. Deny your sexuality. Know your place and follow the rules society deems right for your gender. These themes permeated Academy of Art University School of Acting’s (ACT) recent production of Cloud 9, which transported audiences at the Sutter Street Theater from 1800s Colonial Africa to modern-day London. Due to the timing of Spring Break, the cast had a tighter-than-usual rehearsal schedule for the two-act farce by British playwright Caryl Churchill. But that didn’t stop actors Jack Clendenen, Valerie Compton, Zoe Foulks, Zaya Kolia, Mario Mazzetti, Renee Rogoff and Garrick Sigl from pulling off a seamless, side-splitting rendition of Cloud 9.

As Churchill intended, every cast member had different roles in each act. Several played characters of the opposite sex to drive home the playwright’s point about he confusion people experience when they’re expected to behave certain ways because of their gender. 

A streamlined set design featuring a few well-chosen, simple props added just enough detail to ground the audience. In the first act, for example, a large British flag loomed above one corner of the stage, emblematic of England’s dominance over the world in the Victorian Era. The actors’ authentic-looking costumes helped them transform into their characters and bring the play’s two different time periods to life. 

The first act of Cloud 9 unfolds in a British colony in Africa during the Victorian Era at Christmas time. The audience meets rigid Clive (Sigl) and his family: His dutiful wife Betty (Mazzetti) their young son, Edward (Foulks), and Betty’s mother, Maude (Rogoff). Baby Victoria was a doll, a clever nod to the limited, one-dimensional roles for girls and women at the time. The household also includes African servant Joshua (Kolia)—a member of one of the local tribes Clive is trying to control—and Ellen, the governess (Compton). Mrs. Saunders (also played by Compton), with whom Clive is having an affair, and explorer Harry Bagley (Clendenen), join the family for a Christmas picnic.

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L–R) Mario Mazzetti, Jack Clendenen, Renee Rogoff and Zaya Kolia in Cloud 9. Photo by Bob Toy.

“My character embodies that ideal of duty to the Queen and keeping everyone in his family and all of the natives in line,” said Sigl, an acting major who brought a smooth blend of comic arrogance spiked with cruelty to Clive, his first ACT role. “He’s also a hypocrite. He says his family is important, but he’s cheating on his wife, which reflects the hypocrisy of Colonial England.”

Clive’s controlling ways, and the oppressive rules of Victorian society, take a toll on everyone around him, especially when it comes to their sexuality. After discovering Betty yearns for bisexual Harry, for example, he orders her to “fight against dark female lust.”(Mazzetti was hilarious as Betty, flitting around the stage like a manic butterfly in a full-length, bubble-gum pink dress.) Clive also berates clumsy, doll-loving Edward, infused with childlike exuberance and innocence by Foulks. 

“A boy has no business feeling,” he scolds his son.

The message to repress your true feelings applied to most of the characters throughout the play. But in the second act, the audience had the satisfaction of witnessing them gradually accept themselves as they followed Clive’s family members—minus him—to a London park in sexually-liberated 1980. (Although Act 2 is set 100 years in the future, only 25 years have passed for the characters.) 

No longer a lifeless doll, vibrant Victoria (Foulks) leaves her controlling husband (Kolia) for her lesbian lover, Lin (Compton). Betty (Rogoff) is now a middle-aged divorcee navigating life on her own for the first time. She delivers a poignant monologue about how re-discovering the joys of masturbation helped her reclaim her power. Mazzetti, an ACT M.F.A. student, followed his stellar turn as Betty in Africa with an equally strong performance as Gerry, Edward’s (Clendenen) emotionally shut-down, macho boyfriend. Swaggering across the stage, he boasts to the audience about his penchant for picking up strangers on trains for anonymous sexual encounters.

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(L-R) Zoe Foulks, Jack Clendenen and Valerie Compton in the ACT production of Cloud 9. Photo by Bob Toy.

“I almost didn’t take the roles, because in my mind, I don’t think I can play masculine characters very well,” Mazzetti admitted. “The feminine male character is more my wheelhouse. But then I read that Churchill paired the Betty and Gerry characters because Gerry is Betty’s way of being dangerous. And I was like ‘Oh, I love that.’”

Clendenen brought appealing vulnerability to both his roles while Compton deftly maneuvered between her two characters in the first act—feisty Mrs. Saunders and closeted lesbian Ellen. She was also strong as Lin in Act 2. Sigl had the audience in stitches as her obnoxious, toy gun-wielding 5-year-old, Cathy. And Kolia was masterful as the obedient servant whose pent-up resentment towards Clive slowly simmers and boils over. 

“There was a lot of work for [the cast] to do, and they all did really well,” said Clark Houston-Lewis, the play’s director and ACT instructor. “It’s amazing that Caryl Churchill wrote this play 28 years ago, yet it’s still scarily pointed.”